The Hidden Dangers of Cohabitation

Any formal student of Chinese language who’s made it past the second year has likely gotten to the point where each chapter of his or her textbook takes the form of “[social issue]: is it good or bad?” One of the most common social issues is 同居, or “cohabitation”, specifically, the cohabitation of men and women before they’re married. Often, this cohabitation is part of what’s called a 试婚, or “trial marriage” — the lovers are trying living together before getting actually married…or are they?

According to an article in Chinese newspaper Life Daily (生活日报), “Cohabitation is not protected by law; not being legally married has many hidden dangers“, people intentionally staying unmarried, or even canceling their legal marriages and becoming a legally unwed couple, is an increasingly common phenomenon. Apparently, these couples are looking to “avoid their legal responsibilities and duties”, unaware that “the law is a double edged sword” and their new unmarried status also causes them to lose legal rights.

Why would people intentionally avoid getting married, or even cancel their marriage’s legal status? One reason the article cites is to avoid investigation and prosecution through China’s One Child Policy. The article cites an anonymous example couple who, “after [starting to live together], continuously failed to initiate marriage registration procedures so as to shirk what they felt were trivial investigations through family planning/pregnancy [policies]”. Unfortunately, when the man was killed in a traffic accident, the woman was unable to inherit his money because he hadn’t prepared a will.

Another couple the article mentions avoided registering their marriage married because the husband worked in electricity and water installations, and feared that in the future if he installed something improperly or there was an accident it could translate into massive debt for his beloved. Later, when their relationship soured and the husband wanted to file a complaint to split their property, the courts would not hear the case because their marriage had not been registered.

Still another couple didn’t register their marriage legally because of their “avant-garde” principle of living together: “First, foster feelings, if they are good, stay together, if not, split up.” A few years after they moved in, the ‘wife’ developed breast cancer, which led to significant medical expenses. After borrowing from family and friends, and with nowhere else to turn, the ‘wife’ sought her ‘husband’ to cover the medical expenses. When he failed to pay, she reported him to the courts, but he was only willing to pay 10,000 yuan, and would not cover the rest of the costs, which would be his legal responsibility had they actually been married.

The article presents these kinds of ‘marriages’ as a growing trend, although no hard statistical data is provided. Still, it will be interesting to see if these kinds of relationships become more common as “cohabitation” is increasingly accepted in urban China and as couples realized not getting married is a way to avoid restrictions on how many children they can have.

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